World Cup Group G: Belgium out to prove Panama don't know Jack
Group G gets underway in Sochi today at 16:00 BST. Highly fancied Belgium take on plucky overachiever Panama. The two nations will battle it out in front of 45,000 fans attending the Fisht Stadium.
Belgium will accept nothing less than three points from the encounter. Their team of superstars expect to challenge for the famed World Cup trophy.
Panama, meanwhile, would be more than satisfied to scrape a draw. This is not a far-fetched narrative given the Central American country will experience the World Cup for the first time in history. Indeed, a national holiday was declared to celebrate the milestone.
Having never previously met, every football enthusiast is surely eagerly awaiting this maiden clash.
FIFA Ranking: 3rd
Roberto Martinez has amassed a star-studded squad. It's not top heavy, unlike other formidable nations such as Argentina and Portugal. While the Belgians could do with further depth in the full/wing back positions, their 3-4-3 is a finely functioning system, one which can hurt the very best.
Belgium are likely to play the same line-up that concluded the recent warm-up games. Thibault Courtois between the posts. Thomas Meunier and Yannick Carrasco flanking a central defence of Jan Vertonghen, Vincent Kompany, Toby Alderweireld. In central midfield, Radja Nainggolan's omission means Azel Witsel is set to offer protection alongside Kevin De Bruyne. This talented eight will sit behind a frightening front three. Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and Romelu Lukaku will all be poised to strike.
As well as a strong work ethic, interchangeability fuels the Red Devils. Lukaku is adept at drawing defenders out to the right, creating gaps for the two inside forwards, who are both proficient centrally. Two tricky playmakers, Hazard and Mertens will swap positions in order to supply the Manchester United striker with good service. Should that fail, the bench remains an asset. Michy Batshuayi will be called on in a game's latter half, especially when goals are needed.
In UEFA group H, Belgium totalled 28 points from a possible 30, only failing to defeat Greece. That run included rather incredulous victories of 6-0, 8-1 and 9-0. With success unmatched in any other qualification campaign, Martinez' men head into their World Cup opener with undeniable momentum. Panama beware.
FIFA Ranking: 55th
Roman Torres' 88th-minute winner against Costa Rica realised a country's dream. Panama clinched World Cup qualification with a nationally celebrated 2-1 victory. The Central American team sealed a miracle in the fifth round of qualifying matches, topping the much better equipped United States to book a place in football's greatest event.
During recent friendly games, Los Canaleros departed from their tradition 4-2-2 formation, opting for a 5-4-1. They can hold compact lines, as well as push on in attack by reverting to a 3-4-3. Manager Hernan Dario Gomez seems to believe this system offers the best way of challenging superior opposition in Group G. He will therefore likely stick with it against Belgium.
Panama's key players include Edgar Barcenas. The midfielder delivered a promising performance in March's respectable 1-0 defeat to Denmark. Roman and Gabriel Torres (also known as Fantasmita), are others to watch out for. The former, a Seattle Sounders defender, has amassed 111 international caps.
All 23 players know their jobs. It will prove a case of whether they can remain organised defensively to stop Belgium's formidable attack running riot.
For all the world's footballing romance, it will truly be a miracle if Panama get anything from this game. Even the Premier League's top teams struggle to cope with a Hazard-inspired attack. Belgium can inflict a similar rout as in their qualification campaign. 4-0? 5-0? More? Expect goals aplenty.
Although lacking in both quality and ambition, pray Los Canaleros have something to cheer for the tournament's sake.